US road safety is a cause for concern

There is concern over a worrying trend in US road safety, while there have been steady gains in road safety in Europe
Highway & Network Management / September 6, 2021
By Mike Woof
The US has a worryingly high level of road crashes © Supitcha Mcadam |
The US has a worryingly high level of road crashes © Supitcha Mcadam |

The latest data from the US reveals a worrying trend with regard to road safety. Despite the reduced levels of traffic, fewer journeys and shorter total distances travelled due to the pandemic, US road deaths have not fallen. For all the reduction in journeys being made, US traffic deaths rose 7% in 2020. This was the biggest increase in US road deaths for 13 years.

The figures contrast strongly with those from Europe, where road deaths have fallen during the pandemic. Europe’s roads saw a corresponding drop in serious crashes. There was a 17% fall in road fatalities in Europe in 2020, according to recent data from the European Commission (EC). The data shows that there were 18,800 road deaths across the EU in 2020. The average rate of deaths for the EU in 2020 was 4.2/100,000 of population.

Of serious concern is the apparent drop in seatbelt use in the US. More vehicle occupants have been killed as a result of being thrown from a vehicle following a crash than in previous years. The data reveals that there has been a 20% increase in people not wearing seatbelts being thrown from vehicles involved in crashes. In 2019 there were 5,059 people killed in US road crashes after being thrown from a vehicle, but this figure jumped 20% to 6,052 for 2020.

Meanwhile, 10,369 people not wearing seatbelts were killed in US road crashes in 2019, with the figure rising 15% to 11,883 for 2020. And there were 11,512 deaths of those killed in crashes while wearing a seatbelt in 2020, a drop of 3% from the 11,844 of 2019.

Also of concern is the risk to pedestrians. Data from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) estimates that there were 6,721 pedestrian deaths in 2020. This represents a 4.8% increase from the 6,412 fatalities reported by SHSOs the year before. Factoring in a 13.2% decrease in vehicle miles travelled (VMT) in 2020, the pedestrian fatality rate was 2.3/billion VMT, a shocking and unprecedented 21% increase from 1.9/billion VMT in 2019. This projection is the largest ever annual increase in the pedestrian death rate since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) was established in 1975.

The report shows that pedestrians accounted for 17% of all US traffic deaths in 2019. In 2010 for example, pedestrian deaths accounted for 13% of all US traffic deaths. There has been a shocking 46% increase in pedestrian deaths over the past 10 years. However, the number of all other traffic deaths has increased by just 5%.

The majority of pedestrian deaths are on local roads and in the hours of darkness. In the past decade, the number of pedestrians struck and killed has increased by a shocking 54%. There has been a 16% increase in the number of pedestrians killed in daylight.

Passenger cars account for the highest number of vehicles involved in fatal pedestrian crashes. But in the past 10 years, pedestrian deaths attributed to  crashes involving sport utility vehicles (SUVs) have increased by 69%. Pedestrian deaths in crashes involving passenger cars have increased by 46%.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the poor road safety seen in 2020 can be attributed to drivers taking more risks on the quieter roads. Speeding, not wearing seatbelts, or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol are the key factors.

The US performs poorly on road safety compared with other developed nations. It is of note that the average fatal crash rate/100,000 of population in the US is around four times higher than that of Sweden, which has amongst the best road safety records of any nation in the world. In 2018 there were 11.18 crashes/100,000 of population in the US.

Some US states suffer particularly high risks for road users, with Florida and South Carolina having amongst the worst records for road safety, while New York State has one of the best. Inadequate driver training is seen as another of the issues resulting in poor road safety in the US, again with some states having a more lax approach on driver education and licensing than others. Enforcement can also be more lax in some states than others and DUI is not being tackled effectively in a number of states, while driver distraction relating to the use of smartphones in particular is also recognised as a growing problem.

Insufficient progress has been made on road safety in Europe ©  Image: Mike Woof
Insufficient progress has been made on road safety in Europe ©  Image: Mike Woof

Another road safety issue for the US needing to be addressed relates to the number of crashes involving stationary vehicles. A new study from Impact Research analysed federal data on road crashes and has revealed that an average of 566 people died and 14,371 were injured/year in the period from 2016-2018 in crashes involving stationary vehicles.

A concern highlighted in the report is that inadequate conspicuity for the stationary vehicles may have been a key factor resulting in such high numbers of serious crashes. The report says that making hazard warning lights switch on automatically in the event of a breakdown as well as making them more visible from a greater distance could help reduce the incidence of crashes. Meanwhile, improvements to traffic management systems could also reduce risk.

Of note is that US roads are by no means as dangerous than in past years however. US road deaths hit a peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were 26.27 deaths/100,000 of population in 1967, 26.1/100,000 of population in 1968 and 26.01/100,000 of population in 1972.

The picture for Europe is rather more positive, though the improvement in road safety levels in European countries varies considerably for the 2010-2020 period. The Netherlands made the least progress with reducing road casualty rates, with the UK in second place in lack of progress.

The report produced by the European Transport Safety Council highlights the achievements in road safety seen across 32 nations in Europe during 2010-2020.

Of note is the reduced casualty rates for 2020 compared with 2010. The figure of 18,844 road deaths for 2020 was 37% lower than the figure for 2010. This did fall short of the intended 50% reduction in road deaths that had been hoped for during the 10-year period however.

Of note also was that the current COVID-19 pandemic has led to a major decrease in travel, resulting in a 17% drop in road deaths last year in the EU.

Greece is the winner of the 2021 ETSC Road Safety Performance Index Award. The country has achieved an impressive long-term performance in improving road safety. Greece was the only EU Member State to reach the road death reduction target with a decrease of 54% over the decade to 2020. In sharp contrast, road deaths in the Netherlands fell by just 5% and just 14% in the UK for the 2010-2020 period.

The 15th Road Safety Performance Index report is an official ranking of EU progress on road safety, published by The European Transport Safety Council (ETSC), which looks back at the last 10 years of EU and national action on road safety, and ahead to the next 10 years.

Antonio Avenoso, executive director of ETSC said: “Road safety is, in the end, a public health issue. COVID-19 has killed 3.5 million people worldwide. Over the last decade, at least 13 million have died on the world’s roads. The extraordinary and necessary global response to the Covid pandemic has shown how policymakers and society as a whole can act when most people are working towards a common goal. Can we apply the same focus to the challenges of road safety?”

According to official figures to date, 1,580 people died on the UK’s roads in 2020. Although this was a decrease compared to the previous year and decade, the changes should be interpreted with caution due to the decrease in traffic volumes during the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK was far from achieving the average levels of the EU countries and further from the target signed up to by the UK government 10 years ago.

UK data for 2020 are the provisional total for Great Britain for the year ending June 2020 combined with the total for Northern Ireland for the calendar year 2020.

Commenting on the report, David Davies, executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, said: “It was a decade of missed opportunities. The UK government did not make road safety a priority, refused to set national casualty reduction targets and failed to provide the comprehensive framework to deliver real change.”

“There are indications of a new approach from the UK government, recognising the importance of safety to wider agendas such as improving public health, environmental sustainability and relieving pressure on emergency services. Incorporating the equivalent of the revised EU General Safety Regulation for new cars and lorries into UK law will be an important test.”